Without a Federal Law Guarantee, Reproductive Rights Are in Peril | Opinion

Senate Republicans recently blocked passage of the Women's Health Protection Act, a bill that would have protected the right to abortion free from medically unnecessary restrictions. The vote was held exactly six months after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Texas' SB8 law, which bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, to go into effect. At a stroke, SB8 stopped the people of Texas from exercising their right to basic reproductive health care, and effectively overturned Roe v. Wade for 1 in 10 women of reproductive age in the United States. Now, in the absence of a federal law protecting those rights, people in many other states may soon share the same predicament.

Today Texans must travel across state borders to access abortion care. On average, this means traveling upwards of 247 miles one way. This option is only available to those with the means to travel and the ability to take that time away from work. Texans who don't have those resources are left without access to care.

Since SB8 went into effect, 11 states have introduced copycat laws, with nine other states expressing interest in doing the same. Anti-abortion legislators are not stopping there. Arizona, Florida and West Virginia are close to passing 15-week bans on abortion. Since the FDA permanently eliminated the in-person requirements for it, medication abortions account for more than half of all abortions, and states are moving to restrict access to it.

These attacks on abortion are just the beginning. This year alone, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research organization, 39 states have introduced more than 500 abortion restrictions. This follows on the heels of 2021, which was the worst year for abortion restrictions since Roe with 108 abortion restrictions enacted in 19 states.

This comes at a time when the U.S. is already failing in reproductive health and rights. The Population Institute's annual 50-state report card tracks indicators related to access to family planning, sex education and abortion services. This year's grades were the worst in the report card's 10-year history, with the number of failing states growing from nine a decade ago to 25 this year. The effects are disastrous for people living in failing states.

While anti-abortion legislators are currently hyper-focused on abortion rights, let's be perfectly clear: They will not stop there. Family planning, sex education and LGBTQ+ rights—especially transgender rights—are firmly in their sights.

The consequences of all of this will be devastating, and it has the potential to get much worse during the current Supreme Court term, when justices will rule on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. This case strikes straight at the heart of Roe, whose central holding is that abortion is constitutional until fetal viability. The case is a challenge to Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban, and 15 weeks is well before viability. If the Court upholds the Mississippi law, it will effectively overturn Roe. Without Roe in place, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion.

Women's March
Crowds gather in Foley Square for the Women's March on Oct. 2, 2021, in New York City. Yana Paskova/Getty Images

That would leave vast swaths of the country, especially in the South and Midwest, without access to abortion care. It would force people to travel hundreds of miles to access abortion care, greatly increasing the cost of care and limiting who would be able to get an abortion.

Roe was never enough to guarantee that everyone who needed an abortion could get one no matter where they live. The Women's Health Protection Act would have corrected that, if it hadn't been defeated. Meanwhile, state abortion bans meant to overturn or chip away at Roe have fundamentally unequal effects. Those most impacted by the new restrictions are Black and brown people, those with low incomes, people with disabilities, young people and the LGBTQ+ community.

We need to think about what happens to these people when they are denied an abortion. According to the Turnaway Study, being refused an abortion negatively impacts their financial situation, and their health and well-being. They are more likely to be living in poverty four years after being denied an abortion. They are more likely to stay in contact with a violent partner. And they are at risk for serious health outcomes, including death.

Abortion is a fundamental human right, but it's in real danger right now. A person's ability to access abortion care should not depend on their zip code. The text of the Women's Health Protection Act says, "Reproductive Justice is a human right that can and will be achieved when all people [can] make decisions about their bodies, health, sexuality, families, and communities in all areas of their lives, with dignity and self-determination." That's why we should continue to work to enact it. There will be no justice until everyone, no matter who they are, where they live, or their ability to pay, can exercise abortion rights.

Jennie Wetter is the director of public policy at the Population Institute and the host of the podcast rePROs Fight Back.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.